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Bill Burr Brings Streetwise Progressivism To SJ

In Culture
Serenity Now: Bill Burr insists that he is never angry on stage. ‘It’s not me yelling,’ he says. ‘I’m doing a character.’

Serenity Now: Bill Burr insists that he is never angry on stage. ‘It’s not me yelling,’ he says. ‘I’m doing a character.’

Like his contemporaries, Marc Maron and Louis C.K., stand-up comic Bill Burr cracks up audiences with brutally honest observations about the loathsome, heaving mass of selfishness and vapidity otherwise known as “humanity.” But unlike Maron, who finds punchlines (and dejection) in the realization that he is no different than everyone else, and C.K., who works to tease out the transcendent beauty in all the cruelty and barbarism that surrounds him, Burr grabs laughs through sheer callousness and resignation. The titles of his two most recent Netflix specials say it all: You People Are All The Same and I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.

Need more proof? Within minutes of taking the stage in for the 2014 filming of I’m Sorry, Burr wastes no time in offering up a grim solution to global warming and pollution. “They just don’t want to come out and say it,” he says—referring to hand-wringing politicians and scientists. “Nobody has the balls to come out and say it—and say, ‘Look, 85 percent of you have to go!”

But that’s not the real Burr. Speaking over the phone, the 47-year-old comedian from Canton, Mass., insists that the person his fans see on stage isn’t him. “When I’m doing someone yelling, it’s not me yelling,” he says. “I’m usually doing a character.”

Fair enough. Still, the characters Burr inhabits on stage are quite often angry—or befuddled, exasperated, scared and genuinely bothered by something.

If all of his most hyped-up gesticulations and raised voices are deployed when he is in character, then the actual Burr must look and sound a bit more like the smug, punishingly pragmatic man who drops out of an imitation of Donald Sterling, mid-racist rant, to directly address those who were so outraged by the behavior of the Los Angeles Clippers owner: “What did you think they thought?” Burr says, smirking in bemusement. “You never talked to a grandparent and asked the wrong question and all of a sudden went down this crazy road?”

Which isn’t to say Burr would ever stand behind Sterling’s statements. He is clearly a progressive dude. But Burr’s is not a progressivism born from a liberal arts education at Harvard. His is a “you do you and I’m gonna do me” streetwise progressivism, born of a sharp eye, a sharper mind and a perpetual skepticism for authority.

When asked what he enjoys most about stand-up comedy, he says it is the freedom from such influences that keeps him coming back. And in the process of explaining his love of performing he ends up weaving as eloquent a takedown of income inequality as any presidential speech writer or studied Marxist professor could ever hope to produce.

“I’m using my talent for me—the money is going to go to me,” he says. “All business is set up so the big guy owns it, and it all goes to the big guy, and he tells you what you earned. And that’s just a recipe for getting screwed.”

Bill Burr performs at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts on Jun. 22 at 7pm. More info.

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